Branching out into Modern Chinese Literature

A Few Possible Places to Start (You Should Totally Start).

One of my main impetuses for starting this new blog was a desire to delve deeper into the fascinating world of Chinese literature, and modern Chinese literature in particular. As well as simply reading articles, essays, and books on the subject, I feel that writing about, and attempting to articulate, my own experiences with the genre thus far will be of great help in maintaining my motivation, prompting interesting questions, and exposing deficiencies in my understanding of the books I’ve read, which will hopefully spur me on to learn more.

I’m also hoping that those who’ve never thought to seek out any modern Chinese literature and stumble across this blog, or even actively follow it, should anyone happen to do so, might be inquisitive enough to take the leap into a new literary world. If they do, and should they find they enjoy the experience, I would be overjoyed to think that I’ve shared something that has given me so much pleasure over the last few years, even if it’s with just one person.

In that spirit, I thought I’d start off by recommending a few of the books that I’ve enjoyed the most, as well as doing my best to explain what they are and why I like them. If any of the works listed below pique your interest, assuming there is actually a you with an interest to pique and I’m not just talking to myself, and you do decide to give them a go, then do please let me know what you think of them once you’re done.

As I got back into regular reading primarily as a means to improve my language skills, I read the following books in their original Chinese. However, I’ve taken care to choose only those works for which I could find available English translations, with most of them being reasonably old and all of them being very well-known.

1. To Live, by Yu Hua:

I’ll start off with probably my favourite Chinese novel, and as an introduction to modern Chinese literature, To Live is almost perfect. Short, concise, clear, and easy to follow, the book is a riches to rags story populated by distinctive, likeable, and relatably flawed characters whose personal ups and downs guide the reader through the major historical events of mid-20th century China, from the civil war, to the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and beyond.

Despite a character turnover that puts George R.R. Martin to shame, the ultimate message is one of optimism and positivity. To Live is about coping with what fate throws at you and developing a healthy attitude to both life and death along the way. On this front, Fugui, the central protagonist, acquits himself admirably, ending the novel at a ripe old age, more content than he begins it, having rolled with the punches and come to terms with the abundant tragedies that life has dealt him.

Yu Hua has a direct, uncomplicated writing style which has made him a popular writer amongst learners of Chinese as a foreign language (if that’s you than this is a great place to start). There is also a lot of humour and warmth in his writing and I’m yet to read a book by him that I haven’t enjoyed. If you do decide to read To Live and find that you enjoy it, then you might also want to check out Chronicle of a Blood Merchant and Cries in the Drizzle.

2. Call to Arms, by Lu Xun:

Call to Arms is Lu Xun’s first collection of short stories, beginning with A Madman’s Diary and encompassing the majority of his better known fictional work, including his seminal novella, The True Story of Ah Q. Lu Xun is sometimes referred to as the father of modern Chinese literature, having been at the forefront of the campaign to popularise vernacular Chinese as the predominant literary medium in the early 20th century. He was the most prominent and arguably the most talented of the writers to be associated with the May 4th and New Culture movements.

The prevailing ideological trend amongst literary intellectuals of the time was one of rejuvenating the nation through reassessment of its cultural and historical past. By criticising perceived weaknesses in Chinese society and governance in frank and open terms, they hoped to bring attention to the issues they believed were holding back national development and engender debates that would eventually lead to effective solutions. This trend of drawing attention to and criticising outdated beliefs and practices is the central theme that runs through Lu Xun’s early work, and is expressed perhaps most forcefully in Call to Arms.

Of all the stories contained within this collection it is The True Story of Ah Q that has garnered the most attention and will undoubtedly continue to do. It is also the most substantial. The story acts as a satirical criticism of feudal society and revolution in China on both a macro and a micro level, with Ah Q himself representing both the blind revolutionary, ignorant of the cause under whose banner he marches, but also China as a whole, through the logical contortions he performs that allow him to ignore the reality of his situation and draw a superficial sense of victory from his defeats.

3. The Golden Age, by Wang Xiaobo:

I’m 99% certain that this one is available in English translation, included in the collection titled Wang in Love and Bondage, unlike the original Chinese version, which was published as a stand-alone book. Even then, the novel is comprised of four distinct parts, taking place in different times and locations. These parts are clearly strongly related to each other, and yet somehow you get the feeling that the characters don’t occupy entirely the same universe.

Wang Xiaobo is less well known outside of China than the other writers on this list, although his work has proved hugely popular within his native country. Born in the 1950s, he was a sent-down youth, one of the many urban students who were packed off to the countryside to “learn” from peasants during the Cultural Revolution. Like many other writers and film-makers of his generation, this experience became central to much of his later work, including the stories contained within The Golden Age.

Wang’s style is fairly unique, at least amongst the Chinese authors that I’m familiar with. Clearly semi-autobiographical in nature, his stories revolve around the seemingly mundane lives of a succession of vaguely differing alter egos, always deviant in some minor way and usually marginalised. Set against backdrops of inescapable and oppressive social and political forces, the joy of reading Wang Xiaobo comes from the depth of personal feeling and absurdist, irreverent humour with which he describes his characters and their circumstances.

4. A Dictionary of Maqiao, by Han Shaogong:

Like Wang Xiaobo above, Han Shaogong was a member of the sent-down youth, the lost generation of Chinese students deprived of education and sent to the countryside to perform manual labour. Although many of these mostly privileged urban youth missed the opportunity to study at university, a significant few would go on to make it through the college entrance exams when they resumed in 1977 after Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution (with that year’s exam being the most contested in the history of the PRC). Despite these apparent setbacks, writers from this “lost” generation would go on to have a huge impact on the renewed literary scene as it emerged from decades of stagnation caused by stifling communist doctrine.

Despite gaining fame as the leading figure of the Xungen (Roots Seeking) movement which emerged in the early 1980s, blending folk tale aesthetics with a strong focus on rural peoples and non-Han culture, and in doing so breaking from the socialist realist hegemony that had held sway over literature in mainland China for decades, and despite being predominantly a writer of short form fiction, it is perhaps Han Shaogong’s later, long form novel A Dictionary of Maqiao that now stands as his most famous work, at least to a Western audience.

A Dictionary of Maqiao is a semi-biographical account of the author’s time as a sent-down youth working and living in a production team in the Hunanese countryside. Besides being an insightful, personal account of a period in Chinese history that many people outside the country may be unfamiliar with, what makes A Dictionary of Maqiao particularly interesting is that it is framed as a dictionary of the region’s local dialect, encompassing 115 entries, with each term providing a specific theme and serving as chapters through which the overall narrative unfolds.

For me, as a student of Chinese and someone who associates with the province of Hunan to a weird, disproportionate degree, this linguistic framing adds an extra layer of enjoyment to the novel, but a familiarity with the standard Mandarin from which the Maqiao dialect is juxtaposed is certainly not necessary in order to understand and appreciate the story, its characters, and the cultural nuances being discussed.

5. Affair of Half a Lifetime and Love in a Fallen City, by Zhang Ailing:

From the second I decided to write this list it was a given that Zhang Ailing (better known in the West as Eileen Chang) would be making an appearance. The only issue is which of her works to choose. For me, there are two that stand out clearly from the rest, but being so completely different in substance and style, it’s almost impossible for me to say which I think is better. I can certainly say which I enjoyed reading more, or conversely which left the deepest impression on me when all was said and done, but after much deliberation I simply decided to cop out and pick them both.

Zhang Ailing is another author who’s best known for her short stories. Famed for tales of romance, often doomed, set in Shanghai and Hong Kong during the republican era, she was nevertheless more than capable of holding her own when writing longer form novels, as Affair of Half a Lifetime eminently proves. The novel follows a modern young couple as they set off together on the road of romance but soon takes an unexpected turn into something much deeper, and much darker, that leaves the reader in genuine distress (at least, it did with me: I put the book down and didn’t pick it up again for over a month).

Love in a Fallen City, on the other hand, is a collection of short stories, in my opinion far and away Zhang Ailing’s best and most well-rounded, which contains much of her most famous and best regarded work. The collection includes Sealed Off, an examination of human thoughts and behaviour once exempted from the responsibilities and preasures of the normal order and isolated from the wider world, in this case by being locked down in a tram car during an air raid. In this sense the tram car can be viewed as a microcosm for China during WWII.

The collection also includes one of my personal favourites, The Second Burning, which tells the story of a foreign university lecturer whose new marriage takes an immediate turn for the worse following his wedding night, before eventually culminating with his death. The story interweaves absurdist humour with a critique of Victorian conservatism and outdated upper-class social mores, and showcases Zhang Ailing’s wonderful ability to fuse humour and originality with the tragedy and romance for which she’s better known.

If you’re looking for something as a representative introduction to Zhang Ailing’s writing, both stylistically and thematically, then you should probably start with Love in a Fallen City. If you want a pleasant, enjoyable read, painting sometimes tragic, sometimes light-hearted vignettes of contemporary life amongst the milieu of the Chinese urban elite, then you should read Love in a Fallen City. If you want an emotionally uncomfortable roller coaster that leaves you feeling both drained and betrayed, then by all means, start with Affair of Half a Lifetime instead. Overall, I’d argue it’s marginally the better book.

6. Cat Country, by Lao She:

I always have a hard time deciding whether or not to recommend this one, and not simply because Camel Xiangzi (otherwise known as Rickshaw Boy), traditionally considered to be Lao She’s magnum opus, would make a much more obvious choice. No, I usually baulk at recommending it because I’m acutely aware how trumpeting a book which excoriates elements of traditional Chinese society in such an unrelenting and fatalistic a fashion could come across when it’s a foreigner who’s doing it (the recommending that is).

Nevertheless, Cat Country is undoubtedly a fascinating book for a wide variety of reasons and the criticisms it so acerbically lays out reveal a great deal about its writer, the literary scene in China during the first decades of the 20th century, and the problems that the country and its society have historically faced and continue to face even now.

Due to its Martian setting, Cat Country is often cited as being China’s first science-fiction novel, and while arguably true (although I’d personally argue it isn’t), this is neither a revealing observation, nor a particularly interesting one. What makes Cat Country interesting is its heavy use of satire and its biting assessments of contemporary Chinese society’s relationship with its own history, the realities of its situation, and the nations and peoples outside its own borders.

Despite Camel Xiangzi being undoubtedly the better book (and by all means, read that too, it fully deserves its status as a classic), it lays on its own brand of heavy fatalism in much darker spadefuls, and with none of the absurd, light-hearted satirical humour that Cat Country manages to achieve. Besides, this is supposed to be at least a somewhat varied list and Affair of Half a Lifetime already has us covered in the unhappy gut-punch category.

7. Red Sorghum Clan, by Mo Yan:

My first experience with Mo Yan,The Garlic Ballads, almost put me off reading his other works entirely. How much of that was down to the pacing and content of the novel and how much was down to me trying to tackle it too early in my Chinese education is something I won’t know until I read it again, but I’m certainly glad that I didn’t let first impressions get the better of me. I’ve subsequently gone on to read two other Mo Yan novels, Red Sorghum Clan and Frog, and I thoroughly enjoyed them both. While Frog is certainly an interesting read, Red Sorghum (some versions drop the “Clan” from the title) is definitely the place to start.

The novel employs a non-linear narrative as it jumps back and forth recounting the fortunes of one rural family through a period of time centered around the War of Resistance Against Japan. Chronologically, the narrative begins with the protagonist’s grandmother coming into possession of a distillery for brewing spirits from the sorghum that is grown widely throughout the region and which remains one of the few reassuring constants throughout, thus providing the novel with its name.

Japanese brutality is touched upon, but this is no chest-thumping patriotic account of war, as the novel also focuses on factional infighting between different local groups for supremacy, hinting at a popular (though not entirely fair) narrative that different elements in China’s united front were more concerned with fighting each other than fighting the enemy. Nor is war the real focus of the story, with this being a human account of family and self-discovery at its heart.

Like a number of the books above, Red Sorghum Clan provides an individual, albeit fictionalised, account of life in the midst of major historical turmoil, viewing the ravages of history through the eyes of powerless onlookers caught in its throes. However, unlike many writers of his generation, such as Wang Xiaobo and Han Shaogong above, Mo Yan here eschews the Cultural Revolution in favour of an earlier period in time.

8. Border Town, by Shen Congwen:

In all honesty I would have preferred to put The Long River here rather than Border Town, but as Shen Congwen never actually finished the former, completing only one of his four planned sections, and seeing as I’ve been unable to find an English language version, I’m reluctantly forced to admit that it makes a poor fit for this list.

That’s not to say that Border Town isn’t worth reading, it most certainly is, and it provides a fantastic introduction to Shen Congwen and the themes that enthralled him. One of China’s most celebrated modern writers, it’s claimed that only his death in 1988 prevented him from receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature that same year. And Border Town is, after all, his most famous fictional work.

The story brings together many recurring themes and motifs of Shen Congwen’s writing, set as it is in a remote riverside town, far from the urban centres of administration and populated with simple, pure-hearted rural folk. The presence of a militia garrison in the area also follows a common theme throughout his work, drawing on his own experiences as a young militiaman in rural Hunan. While ostensibly a story of romance and brotherly competition for the affections of Cuicui, the central protagonist, at its heart, the narrative is as much an ode to rural traditions and the underlying generational tensions between new and old that threaten to disrupt them.

A blog about life, love, language, literature and lüyou in Shanghai, China and beyond. I’m a student, a translator, a husband, a human, or at least I try to be.